American history books are full of references to Jamestown and the 13 Colonies along the east coast as the first European settlements in what is now the continental United States. But it is hundreds of miles west, in Santa Fe, New Mexico that you’ll find the oldest church and public building, dating from 1610. Nearby is one of the country’s oldest homes, built in 1646. These structures were crafted of adobe and still stand today … a testament of the durability of earth architecture.
Yet these aren’t even the oldest adobe structures in New Mexico. Southwest of Albuquerque is the Acoma Pueblo, which dates back to 1100 AD. This complex adobe structure is one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the United States.
Just north of Taos in northern New Mexico is the Taos Pueblo, built between 1100 and 1450 AD. The multi-story adobe dwelling is the largest Pueblo structure still existing and is generally considered to be the most photographed and painted building in North America.
The Pueblos were constructed using a method known as ‘puddled’ adobe where successive layers of mixed mud and stone are built gradually up. The first layer is poured directly on the ground and after it dries, another layer is added until the desired wall height is reached. Because the walls eroded over time, mud was ritually coated over the existing exterior as a protection. Some of the walls are several feet thick.
When the Spaniards arrived in the 1500s, they introduced the North African technique of casting the wet mud into bricks using wooden molds, the process still used today. The Spanish word ‘adobe’ is derived from the Arabic al-tub (الطّوب al "the" + tub "brick") and means ‘mud brick.’
A mixture of clay, sand and water, blended with straw or dung is poured into forms and left in the sun to dry, usually for about 30 days. Although a current standard adobe brick is typically ten by fourteen inches and four inches thick, adobe walls built by the Spanish were often more than twice that. Stone rubble footings were also introduced to protect the adobe walls from the ground. By the end of the 18th century, the simple adobe brick buildings and especially the Missions were adorned with festive carvings and brightly painted ornamentation.
Additional examples of historic adobe buildings can be found throughout the state from Old Mesilla’s 1850s Plaza in southern New Mexico to the 1920s La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe to the 1930s WPA adobe homes project in Bosque Farms, near Albuquerque. And there are numerous 16th and 17th century adobe Missions throughout the southwest.
Adobe structures are the original sustainable architecture. Earth materials are environmentally friendly, storing the sun’s heat by day while radiating warmth inward during the night. Earth walls don’t emit toxins, are fire and insect resistant, and can be constructed using locally available materials.
As a bonus, modern techniques of plastering and sealing have eliminated most of the constant upkeep previously required with the old mud walls. Adobe, once considered a building material of the poor, is now the preferred style for many of New Mexico’s most prestigious new homes.
According to Quentin Wilson, director of Northern New Mexico College's Adobe Construction Program, “Adobe stands forever if it has a good foundation, a good roof and occupants who give it a bit of periodic maintenance.”
Tamara Logsdon Hawkinson is a writer based from wherever she can get cellphone service and plug in her laptop. She is the author of The Desert Home and 2 travel guides. Her favorite subjects are history, music and design of the American West and Southwest.